The “Green New Deal” resolution introduced last week by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) was a good idea. The Democrats needed to reestablish climate action as a governmental concern and inject it into the 2020 election. With her high visibility, appeal to young voters, and ability to get under the skin of conservatives, AOC could have been an ideal messenger. Like a football team throwing a bomb to its flashy rookie receiver on the first down of the first game, if executed successfully it could have rattled defenses throughout the season. Unfortunately, the pass was dropped and the Dems might now find themselves wishing they had called a more conventional play.
Sticking with the football analogy just a bit, Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats have been steadily grinding out the yardage but run the risk of being sucked into playing Trump’s game. Since possession of the House shifted to the Democrats, the political agenda and news has been entirely dominated by Trump’s boorish calls for his idiotic wall and his reckless government shutdown. Yes, Pelosi has outmaneuvered him at every step, but the Dems are not going to take back the Senate and White House in 2020 just by playing good defense. Meanwhile, their investigative committees have tread cautiously, partly for fear of interfering with the secretive Mueller investigation and partly for fear of appearing mere hecklers. With each passing week the presidential primary roster expands and, especially if Bernie Sanders enters the race, the risk grows that Medicare-for-All crowds out all other progressive issues. So the idea of AOC streaking down the sideline for a big gain on climate change made some sense.
One reason the play didn’t work as planned was that it wasn’t actually planned. Pelosi was forced to distance herself from it and did so in terms that were a little too dismissive for my taste. But who knows what really went on? Pelosi claimed that she hadn’t even seen the resolution before AOC’s press conference. If true, that’s a serious discourtesy. How is the Speaker supposed to support a resolution she hasn’t seen or apparently had any input into?
But the bigger problem was that Ocasio-Cortez, or her staff, fumbled the ball. Conservative media had a field day with the FAQ sheet her office provided to NPR and the FAQ post on her website, and she eventually had to walk those back amid excuses. I don’t read too much into that from a policy viewpoint. She’s a newly elected official with a new staff, people are just learning their jobs, systems for vetting documents and statements are not established, some staffers are still learning that campaigning is not governing. I’ve been in those environments myself. Mistakes are mistakes, however, and if she’s going to take on issues critical to the future of humanity she’s got to get control of her messaging immediately.
The harm caused by the disarray in AOC’s office was not the predictable ridicule in the conservative media but the confusion sown in the mainstream media. Important outlets and analysts subsequently misreported what the Green New Deal resolution calls for. Can they really be blamed for getting it wrong when the representative who sponsored the legislation is providing that misinformation?
For example, the resolution would not, as has been frequently and erroneously claimed, commit the United States to net zero greenhouse emissions by 2030. The preamble of the resolution cites the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), which determined that net zero emissions worldwide by 2050 will be required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The Resolution text asserts that it would be the duty of the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions through “a fair and just” transition but its actual wording would not commit the United States to achieving that goal even by 2050, much less 2030.
The danger here is that achieving net zero emissions by 2030 is patently unrealistic, and AOC’s initial misrepresentation of that goal, and the media’s repetition of it, encourages potential sympathizers to dismiss the initiative out-of-hand.
Truth is, even achieving zero emissions by 2050 will require an enormous societal commitment (and again, the GND Resolution indirectly endorses that goal without establishing a firm deadline). As difficult as it may be to achieve, however, the 2050 timeline is within the boundaries of current scientific and political thinking. That goal corresponds to the scientific findings of the I.P.C.C. and is consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. In November, 2018, the European Commission established net-zero emissions by 2050 as a goal of the European Union. New Zealand is moving toward adopting a zero carbon goal for 2050. Great Britain, which has already adopted a goal of cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050, is now considering adopting a revised goal of zero net emissions by 2050. Rather than setting inflexible, unachievable targets for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the GND Resolution would indirectly endorse targets that are in step with the policies of most other developed countries.
The GND Resolution also expresses sympathy for the interim goals recommended by the I.P.C.C., which is a 40 to 45 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2030. The Resolution lists a number of interim “goals and projects” that include “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States” and “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources.” The wording of the Resolution is actually very clever (which I take to be Senator Markey’s doing), leaving the door open for nuclear power and other non-renewable technologies. It also does not commit to a firm date for achieving those goals, stating only that they should be “accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization.” In other words, through the GND Resolution congress would recognize the need for a 10-year mobilization to combat global warming, but wouldn’t establish a 10-year window for achieving its emission goals.
Overall, the climate action goals embodied in the GND Resolution are ambitious but in keeping with scientific opinion and with what other developed countries are shooting for, even though the messaging was fumbled. What about its New Deal elements?
Positioning the necessary national mobilization on climate change as an economic opportunity rather than as an economic burden is, in my view, a good strategy. If climate action is presented solely as a bitter pill every American must swallow it’s not going to get far. Moreover, it cannot succeed economically unless new pathways opened up by regulation, investment, and research gather self-sustaining commercial momentum. It is also appropriate to articulate principles of equity that will guide the mobilization, in order to reassure Americans that the costs will not be borne entirely by certain unfortunate groups or regions.
Unfortunately, as critics on the right, center, and left have already pointed out, the GND Resolution loads way too many unrelated social objectives onto the climate action train. It should certainly be an economic goal of the United States to create a sufficient number of jobs with “a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security” but it should not be the responsibility of a climate action plan to “guarantee” such for “all people of the United States.” Likewise, providing all people of the Unites States with “high quality health care,” “affordable, safe and adequate housing” and “economic security” are worthy national aspirations, but encumbering a climate action plan with those complex and controversial issues only makes it easier for skeptics and fence-sitters to dismiss it entirely.
It remains to be seen how the GND Resolution will affect the national discussion on climate change. Maybe it will serve to galvanize national attention to the task even as the early missteps and excesses are forgotten. But I think it would have been far more effective if its sponsors had positioned its environmental goals more firmly within the growing international consensus for action, and if its call for a national mobilization had been more tightly tied to its environmental objectives. Sometimes its better to hit the open receiver for a 32-yard gain than to throw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone.